The Waccamaw River reached record-shattering heights as it crested at 17.9 feet Monday, breaking the 17.8 feet level set in 1928, but with the rising waters also come more bacteria and possible toxins collected from farms, yards, and industrial sites, pulled in from riverbank properties and runoff.
While gauges along the river aren’t currently revealing that high levels of bacteria, such as e. coli, are present in heavy volumes, Waccamaw Riverkeeper Emma Boyer said it’s best for the public to forgo their typical recreational activities along the water because of the potential risks.
“We don’t really expect to see spikes in the bacteria levels right now because we have so much water,” said Boyer. “We know there is bacteria in the river right now. It’s washing off the land from pet waste and farm waste and yards … We know the bacteria is there, but with all of the water in the system the tests don’t pick up on it.”
Most of the members of Coastal Carolina University’s volunteer sample program, who routinely collect water for testing amounts of bacteria and other components, weren’t able to make it out last week due to dangerous conditions. However, one team in Pawleys Island, along with river gauges, scooped up samples that revealed a dilution effect, according to Boyer.
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“There are gauges that are out on the river and so they are collecting continuous data and what we are seeing there is what we saw last year – a lot of dilution,” said Boyer.
There has been concern among area riverkeepers about runoff riddled with animal waste from farms and yards and also possible contamination from coal ash ponds at the former Grainger site in Conway, Boyer said.
“Anytime you have coal ash or any toxic industrial site where waste could be affecting water quality, we’re concerned,” said Boyer.
Santee Cooper, which owns the coal ash ponds, has been monitoring the site since before the storm, and has been working for more than two years to remove the waste and recycle it, said Mollie Gore, spokeswoman for Santee Cooper.
“We are obviously keeping a very close eye on the river and our dike systems around the ponds,” said Mollie Gore.
Some seepage did spill into a mainly-empty ash pond last week, but none has spilled out from the pond, Gore said.
Santee Cooper got permission from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to pump water from the Waccamaw into the pond to alleviate pressure, and an interior dike was added to make the area smaller, Gore said.
She said dam safety experts are on site and that resources have been put in place should any issues arise.
“The good news for everybody is that the river has crested and is starting to fall again,” Gore said.
The river was sitting at 17.66 feet at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, according to a graphic from the National Weather Service. Forecasters have predicted the river will likely remain in major flood stage above 14 feet for about the next two weeks.
Rivers are made to flood, Boyer said. They’re built to handle the natural disaster, as are the wildlife in them, but mixing human elements such as waste and toxins is where the potential problems come in.
Toxic substances, such as gasoline and waste from farms may be lurking in the murky water, Boyer said.
She said she has seen reports of inundation happening at animal farms near other rivers in North Carolina, but thankfully there hasn’t been anything like that upstream at Waccamaw watersheds.
Boyer and area scientists from CCU saw a delayed effect of high levels of bacteria as heights rose above standards in November after the October floods, and said Boyer that could happen again.
She said local scientists believe they may have seen the rise because of leaky septic tanks along the river that were impacted by the forceful pressure from the floodwaters.
She said no one could say what sparked the uptick for sure, but everyone seemed to be in agreement that septic tanks were likely the culprit.
Water quality monitoring will continue to be observed, Boyer said and the public will be alerted if tests read above standard levels.
DHEC will begin its routine testing of the water quality on Nov. 1 assuming the floodwaters have receded, according to Robert Yanity, DHEC spokesman.
“We definitely agree with the river keeper and urge people to stay out of the river and flood waters at this time. DHEC urges everyone not to use area streams, rivers or the ocean for drinking, bathing or swimming due to the possibility of bacteria, waste water or other contaminants. Avoid wading through standing water due to the possibility of sharp objects, power lines or other hazardous debris that might be under the surface,” said Yanity in an email.